March 11: Psalm 68:20-24

Strophe 6: Psalm 68:20-24 [19-23]

Strophe 5 was discussed in the previous note; on the overall structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 20 [19]

“Blessed (be the) Lord
day (after) day,
He lifts the burden for us,
the Mighty (One) (is) our salvation!”

As previously noted, in the third strophe for each part of this Psalm, a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker occurs after the first verse. The reason for this is not at all clear. It may be that the opening verse in the final strophe functions as a refrain, setting the musical pattern, in some fashion, for the lines that follow.

Here, the opening verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets, very much according to the overall metrical pattern of the Psalm. The familiar theme of salvation (hu*Wvy+) is established in this strophe; we may assume that the earlier thematic elements, involving the historical tradition of the Exodus/Conquest, and of YHWH’s cosmological role as a warrior, who fights on behalf of His people, are continued here.

The verb sm^u* denotes carrying a load or burden, but here the idea is surely that of God relieving His people of their burden; Dahood (II, p. 143f) would parse smu in this verse as a Piel privative form, specifically emphasizing the removal of a burden. The Exodus motif of Israel’s deliverance (by God) from bondage and hard labor in Egypt is likely in view. The definite article on la@ (la@h*) in the final line is presumably emphatic, perhaps emphasizing that YHWH (the Mighty [One]) Himself is the source of Israel’s salvation.

Verse 21 [20]

“The Mighty (One) (is indeed) for us
(the) Mighty (One) for (our) salvation,
and to YHWH (our) Lord (we owe)
(our) going forth from death.”

The first couplet of v. 21 essentially repeats the message of v. 20, the repetition itself having an emphatic function. Again the definite article on the first occurrence of la@ is emphatic—i.e., “the Mighty One is indeed for us…”. There is a subtle bit of wordplay, virtually imperceptible to us, in the double use of la@. I have translated the word the same way in both lines; however, it is worth noting that in the first line la@ functions as a proper name (“Mighty [One]”), while in the second line it is a more general term (“[the] mighty [one]”). This is practically identical to the way that we use the word “God” in English; to capture the distinction, we might translate the lines as:

El (is indeed) for us
the God for (our) salvation”

For ancient Israelites, of course, YHWH was identified with the Creator God (la@, El), and the Divine name is used here in the second couplet. This Yahwistic emphasis was an important aspect of Israelite religion that is sometimes overlooked by modern readers of the Old Testament. It is more prominent in the older layers (including the poetry) of the Old Testament Scriptures.

The plural noun toax*oT (“goings forth”) is probably being used in a comprehensive (or intensive) sense, with the reference being primarily to the Exodus. It could also encompass other episodes in Israelite history when YHWH worked salvation for His people. The preposition l= occasionally is used with a meaning similar to /m! (“from”), which would be required by the context here.

Verse 22 [21]

“Indeed, (the) Mightiest struck
(the) head of His enemies,
(the) crown He split (open)
(of him) walking about in his sins.”

Salvation for God’s people means defeat for His enemies, lit. “(those) hostile to Him”. Almost certainly an ordinary military action is implied, though this may be accompanied by supernatural events, such as we see recorded in the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, and in the defeat of Jabin/Sisera (Judges 4-5); the miraculous side of the enemies’ defeat is particularly emphasized in the poetic accounts (Song of the Sea, Song of Deborah).

The defeat is described by the action of YHWH striking (vb Jj^m*) their heads. I follow Dahood (II, p. 144f), in reading MT ru*c@ (“hair”) as a form of the verb ru^v* I (“split [open]”); this root is attested primarily by the noun ru^v^ (“opening, gate[way]”), but cognate occurrences of the verb are known in Ugaritic (¾²r) and Arabic (¾a²ara). This preserves a proper parallelism between the middle lines: “He struck | (their) head / (their) crown | He split”.

The final line, following the ordinary interpretation of the MT, is problematic:

“(of the one [?]) waking about in his sins”

While this rather banal description would certainly characterize the “enemies” of YHWH (i.e., the wicked), it seems awkward and slightly out of place at this point in the strophe. I am tempted to adopt the interpretation of Dahood (II, p. 145), who explains the aleph (a) in wym*v*a&B^ as a prosthetic aleph, and thus reads the word as a form of <y]m^v* (“heaven[s]”), rather than <v*a* (“sin, guilt”). The participle EL@h^t=m! (“walking about”) then would refer to YHWH, not the wicked person (cf. verse 25). Dahood would read the line as follows—

“going (forth) from His heavens”

which would continue the theme from the earlier strophes, emphasizing YHWH’s march alongside His people to the Promised Land, fighting their enemies (who are also His enemies) along the way, making war on their behalf.

Verse 23 [22]

“(The) Lord said:
‘From /v*B* I make (them) return,
return from (the) depths of (the) sea.'”

This verse, as it stands, is even more difficult and enigmatic than v. 22. To begin with, there is no object specified for the Hiphil (causative) verb byv!a*, used twice, in lines 2 and 3. The verb bWv means “turn (back)”, and the Hiphil form here thus means “I make turn (back), I make return”. Presumably the people Israel, God’s people, are the implied object. Moreover, the act of making them ‘return’ must be related in some way to the salvation He works on their behalf, defeating their enemies, etc.

The use of the idiom of “the depths [tolx%m=] of the sea” suggests a general reference to the rescue of His people out of grave danger. In view of this, it is unlikely that /v*B* in the prior line is another reference to Bashan (cf. verse 16). One suspects that a bit of wordplay is involved, which certainly would be typical of the Psalmist’s style. An answer is at hand, by explaining /vb (bšn) here as cognate to Ugaritic b¾n (cf. also Akkadian bašmu), a reference to the great mythic-cosmic Serpent (or Dragon) associated with the Sea (and the primeval waters). In ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth, the Creator God subdues the (dark and chaotic) primeval waters, an act often depicted in terms of defeated a great Serpent-monster. I discuss this mythic tradition in an earlier article. There are a number of references and allusions to this tradition in Old Testament poetry, including several in the Psalms; perhaps the most explicit reference is in Isa 27:1, where the cosmological event is given an eschatological interpretation (cp. in the book of Revelation).

It is significant that, in several passages, the defeat of the sea-monster is tied to the Exodus event (at the Reed Sea), and to the deliverance of the Israelite people from Egypt; cf. Isa 51:9-10; and note the parallel in Ezek 29:3ff. In Psalm 74:12-14, the cosmological tradition of God subduing the Sea-monster is clearly applied, in a general sense, to the idea of His “working salvation in the midst of the earth”. Thus, the idiom could be understood here either in a general sense, or in the specific context of the Exodus. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 145.

Verse 24 [23]

“‘So then you may <wash>
your feet in (the) blood,
(and for the) tongue of your dogs
(your) enemies (shall be) their portion!'”

The final two couplets of this difficult strophe are vivid in their imagery, but rather awkward in terms of the clarity of the poetic syntax. The twisted character of these forceful lines could well be intentional, as if meant to convey, in poetic terms, the harshness of the enemies’ fate. The words of YHWH continue from the previous verse.

There is no doubt that, in accordance with the idea expressed throughout this strophe, YHWH works salvation for His people by defeating their enemies. A military defeat (in battle) is implied, as with the earlier imagery of crushing heads and splitting skulls (v. 22). Here the dominant image is of a bloodbath; i.e., so much blood has been spilled that the victorious Israelites will be able to wash their feet in it. Most commentators are in agreement that the verb Jj^m* (“strike”) in the first line of the MT should be emended to the verb Jj^r* (“wash”), cf. Ps 58:12 [11]; the error presumably was introduced under the influence of the occurrence of Jj^m* in v. 22 (cf. above).

The imagery is extended, in a cruder and more grotesque manner, in the final couplet, as it is announced that the dogs of the Israelite people will have the corpses as their “portion” (hn*m*), able to lick up the blood and feed on the flesh of the bodies (cf. 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23-24, 38, etc).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).